For over two decades, Europe has seen a rising tide of racism and xenophobia threatening to engulf its politics. Increasingly since 9/11, this has become particularized in the form of Islamophobia, coupled with an ideological anti-Semitism propagated by neo-Nazi parties. Since 1984, the political expression of this social disease has been the growth of neo-fascist and far-right parties; the two have fed off each other. Yet, to a degree, it has been held in check by the "historic memory" of the horrors of Hitler's Germany. However, this has begun to change, as recent events have triggered the perception that Christendom is at war with the Dar al Islam, allowing far-right parties to claim a popular resonance and repackage themselves in a way that jettisons much of their historical baggage.
In June 2004, 732 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were elected by 350 million voters in what was one of the world's largest-ever elections. What was the outcome? Parties of power were punished across the continent, except the winners were often not their traditional opponents from the left and right, but right populist parties. In these elections, 25 MEPs from ten neo-Nazi and extreme right-wing parties across seven member States, including three of the recent accession States, were elected to the European Parliament. They were joined by dozens more MEPs who share the rhetoric if not the underpinning ideology. This threatens to further intensify the discrimination against the 12 million to 14 million third-country nationals and the 4 million black Europeans living in the European Union (EU) who already face the threat of physical violence, daily discrimination and verbal harassment--a second-class status with third-class treatment. Following Europe's enlargement into the former Soviet Empire, the far right have new victims in the millions of Roma.
The EU insists on the inclusion of equal rights in the law of all new member States. Yet its practice is threatened by the seductive appeal of the new right-wing parties' innumerate policies on lower taxes and higher public services, while their narrow nationalism strikes a chord with areas of the general public, drip-fed on a tabloid diet of xenophobia. Before the election, the political and media climates were certainly in the new right's favour. For example, the Belgian Vlaams Blok, France's Front National (FN), the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, and the British National Party (BNP) had all performed well at recent local and regional elections, bettering political predictions and in some cases their own expectations. In Europe, the press enjoyed a feeding frenzy with the supposed threat of a torrent of economic immigration as a result of the EU enlargement that in reality turned out to be barely a trickle. However, this factoid--something believed but not actually true--had enabled the far right and the new right to stoke up the public fear and reap the benefits, while minority groups were libelled, assaulted and fearful.
In Britain, the result was that the climate created by the tabloid press and the neo-fascist BNP rhetoric combined to collude with the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and Little Englanders of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The historical baggage of the BNP and its leadership, with its neo-Nazi connections, was just too heavy to be countenanced by most voters. Instead, it was UKIP that stole the BNP thunder and the Tory's glory. They targeted the tabloids and garnered a support that is reflected in the final vote: BNP got 4.9 per cent of the national vote, while UKIP recorded 16.1 per cent (more than the British Liberal Democrats) and 11 seats. UKIP is packaged in Tory colours, but inside it is a "BNP-Lite" party with policies on immigrants, Europe and trade unions that are barely distinguishable. As one leading light of UKIP theologically put it at their 2003 Conference, "a pact with the trade unions is a pact with the devil". The same is true elsewhere.
Across the Channel, Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National was fighting its own internal battle over its leadership succession and direction in the run-up to elections. Le Pen intends the next leader to be his "right reformist" daughter, Marine, rather than his current "national revolutionary" deputy, Bruno Gollnisch. Marine is willing to dump the FN ideology in order to break out from their electoral ghetto and expand beyond the 20 per cent of the French electorate already willing to vote extreme right. This year's result was a victory for Le Pen, with the FN improving their standing, coming fourth behind the Socialists and the two Conservative parties. Seven MEPs from FN were elected, compared to five in the previous Parliament, on a reduced number of French seats and with a new less favourable electoral system.
In Italy, Gianfranco Fini's Alleanza Nazionale, an avowedly neo-fascism party a decade ago but now a right populist party and a key component of the Government, maintained its strong support despite the fall in support for Berlusconi's Forza Italia, while the overtly fascist Alternativa Sociale of Alessandra Mussolini (Benito Mussolini's granddaughter) won just a single seat. Among the new member States, Poland saw far-right, ultra-nationalist parties triumph, with the Liga Polskich Rodzin (Polish League of Families), Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Order) and Samoobrona (Self Defence) recording worrying high votes. Elsewhere, the former Soviet colony countries saw similar if less spectacular results, with xenophobes out-polling internationalist parties. Yet, it was not entirely one-way traffic. In some member States, the populist right were disappointed. Euro-sceptics lost two thirds of their seats in Denmark, and the anti-immigration Lijst Pim Fortuyn, which had a desert blowing after the assassination of its leader two years ago, came in a resounding ninth in Holland. In Austria, the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Jorg Haider crashed, from six seats to just one in the European Parliament. In all of these countries, mainstream parties have embraced the anti-immigration rhetoric of the new right.
Across the whole of the EU, sceptics and xenophobes dressed in sheep's clothing made ground at the expense of those openly proud right-wing extremists. It was only in Belgium that the still unreconstructed, neo-fascist Vlaams Blok continued to advance at the expense of all other parties without publicly diluting its message. "Fascist-Lite" out-polls fascist right. Yet, these new populist fellow-travelling parties are as dangerous, if not more so, as their neo-fascist counterparts. To a degree, the electorate is still inoculated against the political and ideological heirs of Hitler. This is not the case with those who can hide their antecedents through repackaging or reinvention. The less the public face banalization of racism, the more the growth of race-hate music in the unsavoury shadows of Europe. Bands like "No Remorse", short for "no remorse for the Holocaust", and their ilk produce albums called "Barbeque in Rostock", which celebrates the petrol bombing of immigrant housing in that German city.
Yet, there are countervailing forces. The EU has been trying to create a Europe that embraces the principles of dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens' rights and justice. As part of this, it signed in December 2000 the Charter of Fundamental Rights. For the first time in the Union's history, this set out the range of civil, political, economic and social rights of both European citizens and residents in a single text. The EU has also played a key role on international stage. It helped broker a deal, under the auspices of the new EU Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel, at the Third UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. Despite a United States walkout, a final declaration was agreed.
Internally, the EU has tried to isolate the extreme-right. It established the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism, Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism in Vienna to track their advance and look at how best to tackle them. In 2001, following the formation of an Austrian Government coalition that included for the first time the extreme-right Freedom Party, MEPs voted to impose diplomatic sanctions. These were only to be lifted if it was shown, following an investigation, that its new government was not violating article 13, on non-discrimination, of the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. The threat was real. Haider, in power in the province of Carithia, had demonstrated through word and deed his commitment to exclude from civil society those who he considered were "not proper" Austrians, with the abolition of all special measures for indigenous Slovene-speaking minority. Twelve months later, sanctions were lifted as an independent report showed that the Freedom Party was not being allowed to transpose provincial discrimination onto the national stage.
There have been other attempts to combat the growth of racism. Organizations like the European Network Against Racism, which act as a contact point for anti-racism non-governmental organizations, are funded by the EU. Equally, European legislation means each member State has its own commission for racial equality. However, the influence of these organizations is dependent on political will at the government level.
As post-war generations succeed each other, the lessons of the Second World War have slowly slipped into the history books. The forgetting has started. Le Pen intones, "3 million immigrants, 3 million unemployed, 3 million immigrants too many", an echo of the Austrian Nazi slogan of the 1930s: "400,000 Jews, 400,000 unemployed, 400,000 Jews too many". The question is whether the emergence of these new-right populist parties will legitimize the transformation of a rising racism and xenophobia into a day-to-day political programme. The creation of such a poisonous environment of hate and despair in Europe's towns and cities will augur ill for the future of Europe.
Currently, there is a racial attack or incident every three minutes in the EU. Will the ongoing transformation from fascist-right to fascist-lite see that rate rise alongside their continued electoral success? Or will those in Europe, increasingly seduced by this new right, finally have the wool pulled from over their eyes and see them for what they really are: narrow vicious nationalists that threaten Europe's standing in an increasingly global world?
Glyn Ford has been a Labour Member of the European Parliament since 1984, a member of the International Trade Committee, and a substitute on the Foreign Affairs and External Relations Committee. From 1989 to 1993, he was the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) and a member of its National Executive Committee. Between 1984 and 1986, he was the Chair of the Parliament's Committee of Inquiry into the Rise of Racism and Fascism.
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